Quebec's Premier May Resign, Making Way For Change


QUEBEC may soon see a change in leadership.

Provincial Premier Robert Bourassa, who has said he is seriously ill, is widely expected to announce in coming days whether he will step down as leader of the provincial Liberal Party and of the province. He says his decision will be based on his doctor's recommendation.

But the wide uncertainty created by Mr. Bourassa's periodic absences from debates in the provincial legislature may have taken choice in the matter out of the premier's hands.

"Change is what people are asking for. I don't think Bourassa will stay," said Marcel C, a former Bourassa campaign adviser, in a recent interview. "He will resign in May or June."

Questions about Bourassa's future come at a time of vigorous debate in Quebec over several emotional issues, including language, the provincial budget, and a government confrontation with public-sector unions.

The biggest debate is over language. Parti Qucois (PQ) separatists last week attacked a compromise in which the provincial legislature's Liberal majority agreed to modify the controversial French-only sign law to permit English as well as French on commercial signs - with French still predominating. Billboards would still be required to be in French only.

The Liberal majority has long been at odds with itself over its strict language law. Bill 178 was passed five years ago in a more stridently nationalist period, and amid protests by Quebec's English speakers and across English-speaking Canada. A 1988 ruling by Canada's Supreme Court against the law was overruled when Quebec invoked a constitutional tool that allows any province to opt out of any federal law it deems out of order for five years.

Last week's language-law compromise was spurred in part because the provincial language law is coming up for a five-year review, mandated by Canadian law, and because of a recent United Nations Human Rights Committee ruling that declared the French-only sign law in conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Liberals were in a bind on the language issue until a few weeks ago, divided within their ranks and facing attacks from separatists. But Bourassa brought together the nationalist wing of his party in a compromise with the federalist wing.

Resolution of the language issue also opens the door for healing of an internal party rift over last year's constitutional referendum in which the party's nationalist wing pushed for looser ties with Canada than was finally accepted under the plan, known as the Charlottetown Accord. That plan failed in a national referendum that left the Liberals in disarray.

Still, Liberals face a tough PQ foe in provincial elections that must be held before September 1994. Their biggest problem now is what to do if the popular Bourassa is forced to resign.

Liberal Party officials still publicly defer to Bourassa out of respect, and refuse to discuss what would happen if he leaves.

Even so, some say there are signs of preparations for a leadership convention and movement among top party officials considered potential successors. Strategy meetings have begun to be held along with discussions on revising the Liberal platform, including its constitutional plank, a Liberal source says.

Party officials often spoken of as possible successors to Bourassa include party Treasurer Daniel Johnson, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Gil Remillard, Environment Minister Pierre Paradis, and Energy Minister Lise Bacon.

Mr. Johnson, the party treasurer, is widely considered by pundits to be a top contender to win a Liberal Party leadership convention, should Bourassa resign. In an interview late last month, Johnson deflected all questions about what challenges the party would face if Bourassa resigns.

"I have rarely seen him in such good shape," he said of the premier.

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